Difficult, uncompromising and brilliant, David Briggs and Neil Young were the contradiction that ruled rock in the 1970’s. After meeting by chance in the late 60’s, they made some 18 records together, spanning more than a quarter of a century and were so productive that we’re still uncovering the great forgotten moments now. The aptly named Hitchhiker – Briggs met Young when he picked him up hitchhiking – was recorded in one evening back in 1976. 10 songs produced as straightforwardly as you can imagine, just one man, his guitar, and a lot of drugs. This is an album that eschews polish in favour of authenticity, songs half-wrought and visceral in their despair and intimacy.
Much of what appears here turned up in one form or another at a later point in Neil’s career. The opening salvo of Pocahontas and Powderfinger, which would elevate the 1979 LP Rust Never Sleeps, are stripped bare here. The latter, a peculiarly dark and lucid tale of pastoral loneliness, glows with a supernatural grace without the warm chunter of guitar and melodious backing vocals laid down by Crazy Horse.
The brilliance of these tracks is a testament to Brigg’s enduring philosophy of music production: “You get a great sound at the source. Put the correct mic in front of the source, get it to tape the shortest possible route — that’s how you get a great sound. All other ways are work.”[i]
This simplicity is something which is intrinsic to this record including the two previously unreleased tracks. Opening with a stoned giggle, Hawaii seems to depict a surreal dream conversation with a stranger, held together with straggling guitar and broken falsetto. Give Me Strength is an altogether straighter effort as Neil seeks stoicism in the dark hours of the night, the harmonica’s baleful lament close but soaring away: “The happier you fly/The sadder you fall/The laughter in your eyes/Is never all/Give me strength to move along/Give me strength to realise she’s gone.”
Briggs and Young were always an unlikely pair of bedfellows. Two people who seemed intolerant of so many other people yet who, as producer and musician, could barely be parted. It was, in many ways, this intolerance that drew them together. Perhaps, they were the only 2 people who could stand up to each other. As Neil Young himself admitted: “David was usually right, and when I disagreed with him, I was usually wrong.”[ii] Somehow, they always seemed to get the best out of each other – as on Campaigner, a song already released on the 1977 career retrospective Decade, is the highlight of this record, where it seems to have found its natural habitat. Lyrically, it is classic Young, somehow both contradictory and candid: “I am a lonely visitor/I came too late to cause a stir/Though I campaigned all my life/towards that goal.” It is astounded and confounded by living and finds beauty in the most unlikely corners: “Roads stretch out like healthy veins/And wild gift horses strain the reins/Where even Richard Nixon has got soul/Even Richard Nixon has got soul.”
Even if by some strange quirk you already own most or all of these songs, Hitchhiker is worth the effort. It does what Briggs did best, it captures a moment. In this case a late evening in Malibu in 1976 when one of the finest musicians of the last century was at the height of his powers and sat down and sang 10 songs that would echo through music history.
[i] “Shakey, Neil Young’s biography” Jimmy McDonough ISBN 009944358
[ii] “Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream” Neil Young ISBN 0399159460